Right swing for lefties wins a major backing

Golf: A victory by Mike Weir in last year's Masters has made it OK to hit from the `wrong' side of the tee.

Golf

April 07, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

In subtle ways, Mike Weir's playoff victory in last year's Masters reverberated far beyond the little Georgia town that the world pays attention to one week a year.

History was made in Augusta, as a different kind of minority had won the Masters.

Weir, 33, who grew up outside Toronto, not only became the first Canadian to win a major championship, but he also became the first left-hander in 40 years to win one of golf's four Grand Slam events.

All over the world, a growing but distinctly small species - the left-handed golfer - hailed Weir's victory.

Though Weir admitted at the time that winning for Canada was a bit more important to him than winning for left-handers, the world's fifth-ranked player knows that his victory resonated with a certain segment of the golfing public that has long been derided for hitting from the wrong side of the tee.

"I'm signing autographs or something and they'll say, `I'm a lefty too,' " said Weir, who'll try to defend his title when the Masters begins tomorrow at Augusta National. "They're happy there's another lefty out there doing something."

For years since Bob Charles won the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1963, lefty golfers had been waiting for one of their own to win another major.

Left-hand breakthrough

For the past decade, as left-handers became more prominent on the PGA Tour, many figured it would be the player called "Lefty" - Phil Mickelson. He is, after all, the most accomplished left-handed player in history.

While Mickelson has come close in nearly a dozen majors, including a tie for third last year at Augusta, it was Weir who broke through.

His sudden-death playoff victory was certainly great for Steve Anderson's business.

Anderson, author of the lefties' guide, On The Other Hand and the self-proclaimed only left-handed Master Professional in the PGA of America, noticed a trend at the Florida course where he teaches during the weeks and months that followed Weir's playoff victory.

"I had about eight right-handed students who did everything else left-handed ask me to switch them back to their natural swings," Anderson said last week from Fort Myers, Fla., where he works for the Ken Venturi Golf Schools. "They're not embarrassed to be left-handed players anymore."

It was also great for Mark Johnson's business.

Johnson, a former mid-level manager for Microsoft who retired with a seven-figure nest egg at age 37 in 1998, had already established a Web site devoted to left-handed golfers. In the aftermath of Weir's victory, left-teegolf.com started getting many more visitors.

"We get about 250,000 hits a day, about 150,000 page views and 110,000 unique visits a day," said Johnson, who is right-handed and runs his Web site out of his home in the Seattle suburbs.

When Weir won, stories were retold about the time he wrote Jack Nicklaus as a teen looking for advice about his game and how Nicklaus wrote back, encouraging Weir not to change his "natural" swing.

Can you imagine what the golf world would have been like had other lefties been given the same direction? Or if the equipment for lefties was on a par with that being used by right-handers?

Had there been a couple of left-handed clubs in the caddie yard back in Fort Worth, Texas, all those years ago, a tough-as-nails fellow named Ben Hogan might have become the game's first left-handed star. Hogan won nine major championships, all right-handed.

Around that time, the legendary Harry Vardon summed up the feelings of his and later generations about left-handed golfers. Asked once if he had seen a lefty play golf, Vardon reportedly muttered, "Not one worth a damn."

Hogan wasn't the only prominent left-hander to play right-handed. So did two former U.S. Open champions, Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller. Even Len Mattiace, the journeyman whose double bogey on the first playoff hole opened the door for Weir to win the Masters, signed his check left-handed after losing right-handed.

Currently, there are four left-handers playing regularly on the PGA Tour: Weir, Mickelson, Steve Flesch and Australian Greg Chalmers; a fifth, Russ Cochran, is back on the tour after regaining his card at Q school last fall. Charles is still playing occasionally on the Champions tour and Angela Buzminski is the only regular lefty on the LPGA Tour.

The National Left-handers Golfers Association (NLGA) estimates 7 percent of golfers are lefties even though about 10 percent of the general population is left-handed. There are a multitude of reasons for that, such as few teachers who felt comfortable with lefties and the lack of equipment until recently.

Right clubs for lefties

When manufacturers started making left-handed clubs, they turned out only a small fraction of the number that were produced for right-handers. While left-handed clubs have become easier to obtain in the past couple of decades, some golf shops don't carry a lot for fear of them gathering dust. Some don't even have them to rent.

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